Monday, July 2, 2007

More to Economic Inequality Than Just the "Digital Divide"

The Boston Globe has an op-ed by Nolan Bowie, a fellow at Harvard's John F. Kennedy School of Government, entitled "Education for the long term". In it, Bowie argues that government investment in providing high-speed Internet access to all citizens would solve a whole host of social problems. He writes:
"I wish to share my vision of a possible future where the digital divide -- a term that implies inequality of access to Internet connectivity, to relevant information, education, knowledge, and opportunity in digital formats and in digital networks -- is eliminated in the United States by adapting a national ubiquitous high-speed broadband policy....

Wouldn't such a future infrastructure enable America to be a competitive player in the emerging global knowledge economy? Wouldn't this empower our workforce to be more productive, flexible, responsive, creative, and better trained? Wouldn't our citizens be better informed and more engaged in civil society and more readily participate in the process of democracy?

Wouldn't adult illiteracy be reduced and children from pre kindergarten through and including post-college education be better adaptive and more critical thinkers and actors with access to lifelong learning and education opportunities?"
Expanding our nation's broadband infrastructure may be a worthwhile project, but it is not going to do much to solve the economic inequality in the U.S. Let us imagine two American moms:

Mom A is working 2 or 3 minimum wage jobs just to survive.
She would like to move from her crime-ridden neighborhood with dreadful public schools to someplace with safer streets and better schools but she can't afford it. She is one paycheck away from financial disaster. Perhaps she is an immigrant who is barely literate in her primary language or perhaps she is a native who is one of the millions of "functional illiterates" in the U.S. Maybe she is a high school dropout or maybe she graduated with an essentially worthless piece of paper. Her jobs do not provide health benefits so she did not get adequate prenatal care when she found herself unexpectedly pregnant. The father of her child does not provide any kind of support, financial or otherwise.

Mom A wants to do what is right for her child but so much of her energy is focused on trying to meet the most basic needs. As money is so tight and she lacks a car to get to the well-stocked supermarket in the rich neighborhood, she often feeds her child cheap packaged junk like boxed Mac 'n Cheese. She cannot find a dentist or optometrist who accepts Medi-Cal patients, offers appointments at times she can make since she does not have paid sick leave, is accessible via public transportation, and (if applicable) is fluent in her native tongue. So even though she suspects her child may have a cavity or need glasses, she doesn't take him and just hopes everything will be okay.

By contrast, Mom B is a former white collar professional turned full-time homemaker. Her husband's good salary allows them to live in a safe neighborhood with excellent public and private schools. She is highly educated, perhaps with a graduate degree from an Ivy League university. She has good insurance coverage that allows her and her child to see their choice of doctors, dentists, optometrists, and other healthcare providers. She saw her physician for a "pre-conception physical" before trying to conceive and saw him/her regularly throughout her pregnancy. Her child began regular visits to the pediatric dentist and opthalmologist in the first year of life. She has the money, access to a good supermarket, and the free time to feed her family a well-balanced diet of organic "whole foods" she cooks from scratch.

As Mom B's basic needs are taken care of, she devotes her energy to providing intellectual stimulation to her child. She spends hours each day reading to her child, going on nature walks, listening to classical music, supervising creative art activities, playing educational games, and taking her child on outings to museums, zoos, aquariums, the symphony, and so on.

Does Nolan Bowie truly believe that simply providing high-speed Internet access is going to level the playing field between the children of Mom A and Mom B?

Betty Hart and Todd Risley wrote a whole book called
Meaningful Differences in the Everyday Experience of Young American Children on a study they did of language differences in the homes of poor and affluent children. The authors found (emphasis added):
By age 3, the recorded spoken vocabularies of the children from the professional families were larger than those of the parents in the welfare families. Between professional and welfare parents, there was a difference of almost 300 words spoken per hour. Extrapolating this verbal interaction to a year, a child in a professional family would hear 11 million words while a child in a welfare family would hear just 3 million.
How exactly would providing broadband Internet solve this language gap?

The level of economic inequality in this country is truly shameful. Instead of throwing taxpayer money at technology, how about first addressing some of the more pressing issues? The need for affordable housing, healthcare, nutritious food, education/job training, and so on is a million times greater than the "need" for high-speed Internet access.

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